Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Royal Coat of Arms

by Debra Brown

Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Heraldry.

Officially the Coat of Arms of the British monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II. The Coat of Arms is used by the Queen as monarch and is officially known as her Arms of Dominion.

Many images and symbols make up the Coat of Arms, and each represents something specific.

At the bottom is a white ribbon or banner which reads Dieu et Mon Droit. This is French, meaning God and my Right. French was the language of the Royal Court at the time of the introduction of the words by Edward III in the 14th century. At the time, it was believed that the monarchs were answerable only to God.

This motto is not required on the Coat of Arms, and although most monarchs used it, there were a few that did not. Queen Anne used Semper Eadem, which means Always the Same.

Originally, mottoes may have been associated with badges or war cries, but they usually expressed loyal or pious sentiments or a play on the name of the bearer. Henry IV was apparently the first monarch to adopt a motto on the Royal Arms with Souverayne, which meant Sovereign. His son, Henry V, first adopted Dieu et mon Droit.

Behind the banner on the Royal Arms, a grassy mound incorporates the plant emblems of Scotland (thistle), Ireland (shamrock) and England (rose).

The shield has evolved in shape from its Medieval long ‘kite’ shape in the late 1100s into the ‘flat iron’ shape used today. This mirrors the change in actual shields. The kite-shaped shields were large, covering almost half of the bearer’s body. As armour became more sophisticated, shields became smaller until they were about a third the size of the bearer.

It wasn’t thought appropriate for the arms of a woman to be shown on a shield connected with warfare, therefore they are always shown on a lozenge or diamond shape shield.
The first and fourth quarters of the shield of the current Royal Arms (at the top left and bottom right): In both, there are three golden lions, one above the other on a red background representing England. They walk facing out with flexed blue claws and tongues sticking out.

The second quarter (at the top right): There is a red lion on a gold background representing Scotland. Standing on his hind legs, he faces forward with blue flexed claws and his tongue sticking out. There is a double border decorated with fleur de lis alternating in direction.

The third quarter (at the bottom left): A golden harp with silver strings is sitting on a blue background representing Ireland. The Harp has been the symbol of the Kingdom of Ireland since the early 1200s. The harp is on 8th and 9th century stone crosses and manuscripts and is said to represent the Biblical King David. This possibly explains why harpists have always been a favorite in Ireland. Added in 1541 to the Royal Arms, it now represents only Northern Ireland.

Around the shield you will find the Order of the Garter. It is a French Royal blue ‘belt’ with the motto Honi Soit Qui Mal y Pense, meaning Shame on Him who thinks Evil of it. The Order of the Garter, founded by Edward III in 1348, was inspired by King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. It is a symbol for one of the oldest and most senior orders of chivalry. Though the order was founded by Edward III, it was King Henry VIII who added the symbol to the Royal Arms.

The fleur de lis at the bottom of the garter appeared first on the French Royal Arms in the 1100s and was included on the English Royal Arms in 1340. It existed as an emblem long before its use on heraldry when it appeared on the top of the scepter and as on ornament on crowns. Its origins have been widely debated.

The helmet, or helm, sitting atop the shield is based on real helmets that were worn in battle. The shape was originally a simple, cylindrical steel design with a flat top and, at times, gold embellishments. This evolved into more elaborate designs which would never have been used on a real battlefield, but looked more convincing.

During the reign of Elizabeth I a unique style of helm was designed for the Royal Arms – gold with a barred visor, facing the viewer. This has been used ever since. From the 17th century stylized forms of Medieval helm have been depicted to indicate the rank of the bearer: the melee helm for a peer; the barriers helm for baronets and knights; and the tilting helm for gentlemen.

Tied to the helmet atop the shield is the mantling, a cloth of gold trimmed with ermine fur. The mantling is based on the small cloak that hung from a knight's helmet over his shoulders to protect him from the elements. Often torn or jagged from the cuts and slashes it had received in battle, it would have greatly enhanced a knight’s reputation on his return home.

The mantling is usually in the principal colours (tinctures) and metals of the shield. Generally a colour on the outside and metal or fur in the lining is depicted, however; the Royal Arms is a rare exception to this as it uses a metal and a fur and no colour. It was originally a red cloth lined with ermine fur, but Elizabeth I altered it.

The crest is a group of symbols atop the helmet. The royal crest is a stately lion standing on the crown facing us and wearing a gold crown himself.

Real crests were attached to a knight’s helmet so he could be easily recognized in battle. Originally a practical object, the crest degenerated into a farce when it became a drawn formality, rather than worn. Crests appeared in the shape of enormous monsters, odd ships or clouds, for example, which would have considerably hampered a knight had they been worn.

The supporters of the shield are the animals that stand on either side to hold and guard it. On the left, the most important side, is a crowned, gold lion looking towards us, representing England. Lions represent great strength, ferocity and majesty- the king of beasts. Though very few people in Europe had ever seen one, the symbol was used. The first actual lion arrived in England during the reign of Henry I (1100-1135) to be kept in his zoo at Woodstock.

In the early days of heraldry, emphasizing their fierceness, lions were shown as rampant or passant. Many people wanted to have lions on their coats of arms, and it became necessary to have sixty or more different positions so that no two coats of arms were alike.

On the right is a silver Unicorn with a gold horn, a mane, beard and hooves, representing Scotland. Chained to the compartment, he has a coronet around his neck with alternating crosses and fleur de lis.

Unicorns were well known through classical Greek and Roman texts, the Bible and Medieval beasteries. They were described as large and very fierce. Thus they were chosen to guard the Royal Arms, and and it explains why they are always shown chained up. A unicorn’s whiteness symbolised purity and chastity, later leading to them being seen by some as symbols of Christ and his incarnation.

In England, supporters were not integral originally to the Royal Arms and were subject to frequent change. Only in the 15th century did their use became consistent. Since then, various imaginary and real beasts have been used. Examples include the hart, greyhound, dragon and bull.

My information in this article comes from The Churches Conservation Trust who contacted me to share their fabulous information near the time of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. Please visit their website- there is much to be seen! I hope you have enjoyed this history and its symbolism that they have worked so hard to share.

The top picture of the Royal Coat of Arms comes much appreciated from Wikimedia.

Debra Brown is the author of Regency and Victorian stories. The Companion of Lady Holmeshire, an Austen-style story with suspense, was published in 2011 by World Castle Publishing, and Debra is working on For the Skylark, the start of the Dante and Evangeline Suspense Series.

Twitter: @kescah


  1. An extensive, interesting and detailed explanation of the elements of The Royal Coat of Arms with many hitherto not generally known facts. Thank you.

  2. Wow! Thank you for such a detailed article! I never knew that.

  3. This is a fascinating article on Coats of Arms history. My Lineage uncovers new Coats of Arms daily so it’s exciting for us to see new ones.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.